Originality Isn't Everything: Write What You Know

My Tips: 1. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about what you enjoy writing. 2. If what you love is genre, learn more. Study the origins, read criticism, read books about it. 3. Take the pressure off, and just practice. You don’t always have to be original. I don’t say that I write what I know, but I do say that I write what I feel, I write what I think is beautiful, and I write what I enjoy. And so should you.
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I loved fairy tales from a very young age. It never really mattered whether it was a book, movie, or someone telling me a story before bed. I loved the adventure, mystery, and fun of them. I devoured them so quickly, I remember going through all the shelves in the children’s section of the library and my mother speaking directly to the librarian for advice.

In my teens I was a budding storyteller myself, and I heard the advice over and over that you should write what you know. The first time I heard this advice was actually in Little Women. Jo March, a writer, sells mad fantastical stories of murder and mayhem. But her mentor Professor Bhaer is disgusted. He tells her these tall tales are nothing but trash. That she has the potential to write something great, and she’s wasting her time. She then put together a book that’s autobiographical, and he has it published.

(Can you query an agent for a short story collection?)

at-times-i-almost-dream-cover
amy-yergen-author-writer

Guest column by Amy E. Yergen, a new Science Fiction and Fantasy
Author. In August of 2010, she completed her MFA in Creative Writing
and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California,
Riverside. Her critically-praised 2013 collection of stories is
AT TIMES I ALMOST DREAM (Pink Narcissus Press, Feb.
2013). She lives with her family and her marmalade cats;
Mr. Darcy & Mr. Knightly. Find her on Twitter or Facebook.

Being a lover of fantasy, a nerd who read Lord of the Rings at twelve and had a rather large collection of Star Trek books, I was heartbroken. I looked for advice in books, but all of a sudden a book was telling me something that seemed wrong. I didn’t really understand. To further complicate things, teachers began to say similar things. Did that mean I couldn’t be a writer? Did I have to wait until I was old so I had something interesting to write about? At this point, I stopped. Nothing seemed good enough. I kept reading, I kept watching movies, but I put my pen and notebook away.

(Look through our list of fantasy literary agents.)

In college I fell in love again, but this time with fandom: The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire. Everything was exciting; suddenly there were other people who understood my adoration of story. And I found something else. Fanfiction.

It felt more than vaguely illicit. Even now, many fanfiction writers don’t like to admit it. You’re not being original. You’re stealing from a real writer. Shipping, Crack!fics, Alternate Universes. No one cares what you do, and there’s no limit to your imagination. There’s no pressure write something great. So I just wrote. I wrote a story every weekend.

I came to the realization that writing was something that I really loved to do. And that there were at least certain aspects that I was good at. No, great at. I had audience feedback telling me that my story about Lois & Superman had made them cry. I wasn’t Lois, and there’s no such thing as Superman. Did that mean that the advice I had been hearing all my life was wrong? Had I become a writer without even realizing it?

I went to graduate school for creative writing and put together a book of my own ten fairy tales. Did I write what I know? I guess it depends on your definition. Even while writing my collection I had professors tell me that my writing was just as good without all that “magic stuff.” That I didn’t need genre to be interesting. Of course, no one does. I don’t think that’s the point. Sometimes magic has been metaphor, and sometimes it’s merely garnish.

(Tips on How to Research a Novel.)

My Tips

1. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about what you enjoy writing

2. If what you love is genre, learn more. Study the origins, read criticism, read books about it

3. Take the pressure off, and just practice. You don’t always have to be original

I don’t say that I write what I know, but I do say that I write what I feel, I write what I think is beautiful, and I write what I enjoy. And so should you.


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